Moderated by Tom Sabulis
On May 21, U.S. District Judge Timothy Batten ruled in favor of establishing district voting in Fayette County, where countywide at-large voting has been the norm. The national NAACP had sued the county to change its system to give black candidates a chance in local elections. The county voted to appeal that decision. Today, the NAACP says the time has come for district voting, while the Fayette County Commission chairman says the issue should not be forced.
Commenting is open below.
By John Jones
As a child of the Jim Crow era South in Americus, I marched to protest inequality. A lot has changed since then, but not in Fayette County.
Because of great schools and increasing property values, my wife and I thought Fayette had the best quality of life in metro Atlanta. Being near the Atlanta airport was important, since I am a commercial airline pilot.
The black population was about 13 percent when we relocated in 1997, so I instinctively knew the NAACP was needed in Fayette. We became charter members of the Fayette County branch.
Soon, we encountered an all-white power structure that expected black folks to keep their grass cut, pay their taxes and stay in their place. Little did we know we had stepped back in time because, in essence, the civil rights movement had simply bypassed our county.
As the African-American population increased toward the current level of over 20 percent, several well-qualified black political candidates from both major parties ran for various countywide offices and failed. It’s unnecessarily costly to run a countywide campaign to serve a single district, and they simply couldn’t get enough white votes to win.
The only black candidate who ever held countywide elected office in Fayette was now-deceased Magistrate Judge Chuck Floyd. Ironically, he was chosen to replace a white judge who resigned in 2002 under pressure from the NAACP.
I moved up through the ranks to become Fayette NAACP Branch president in 2008, continually advocating for a change to district voting.
Georgia NAACP President Ed Dubose helped get the NAACP Legal Defense Fund to file a federal lawsuit in August 2011. U.S. District Judge Timothy Batten rightfully ruled in favor of the NAACP and ordered Fayette to adopt district voting. County commissioners are pursuing an appeal of the judge’s decision.
Close to $300,000 has already been wasted trying to keep Jim Crow Era at-large voting alive in Fayette, and the meter is still running. Those in the majority say that with district voting, they will be disenfranchised because they will no longer be able to vote for candidates that represent other districts outside of the one in which they live. How selfish is that?
In the 1960s, the majority didn’t want blacks to have an equal opportunity to vote or get elected to political office. The Voting Rights Act was enacted to prevent voter suppression and give minorities residing within a geographically compact area the opportunity to elect the candidate of their choice.
Subconsciously, most blacks in Fayette know that we are still not considered equal in the eyes of many white people, and it’s up to white people in Fayette to help change that.
My ultimate goal is to make Fayette a model of diversity and inclusion and a place where African-Americans and people of all races feel welcome. Every surrounding county has district voting, so I appeal to fair-minded whites in Fayette to press county leaders to accept district voting.
I also appeal to my Fayette leaders to comply with Judge Batten’s order and advance us into the 21st century, or risk exposing the county to serious unwanted consequences.
Resisting change will just draw more attention to this place, where the heirs of Jim Crow are trying to cling to absolute power. But the Fayette County civil rights movement is gathering momentum. One day soon, we too shall overcome.
John Jones is president of the Fayette County NAACP.
By Steve Brown
We definitely need election systems that prohibit racially discriminatory practices. In 1965, it was not difficult to identify the discriminatory practices creating the need for the Voting Rights Act: poll taxes, literacy tests, grandfather clauses and voter intimidation. However, the modern era is anything but crystal clear on recent claims before the courts on Section 2 cases.
A review of U.S. Supreme Court rulings shows it is obvious the justices over the years have had a difficult time distinguishing what is and is not constitutional. Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, in the plurality opinion for Bush v. Vera, stated that “the application of the principles that I have outlined” in determining compliance with Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act “sometimes requires difficult exercises of judgment.” She added, “That difficulty is inevitable.”
It is difficult to determine just how far the law allows a jurisdiction to manipulate voting districts to justify what some deem as extreme measures to gain a majority-minority district.
In Georgia State Conference NAACP v. Fayette County Board of Commissioners, a majority-minority district can be achieved only through excessive gerrymandering, and even then, a “majority” is achieved by a mere 35 voters.
The judicial rule of thumb is the Gingles tripartite test (from Thornburg v. Gingles, 1985), stating the minority group must show “that it is sufficiently large and geographically compact” to “constitute a majority in a single-member district.” Consequently, the district snaking down a road and picking up an African-American household here, excluding adjacent property, snaking down another road and picking up another African-American household there, is not geographically compact and demonstrates the population is not sufficiently large.
Nonetheless, the day is coming when Fayette will meet the genuine criteria for creating a majority-minority district as the African-American population grows, readily accepted by our Board of Commissioners. It is a shame we cannot wait to reach that point in time, creating a Gingles minority district, one that is a tribute to our integrity and our respect for the law.
On the other hand, please know that a majority of our commissioners last year offered a full district voting settlement to the NAACP very similar to a plan they previously accepted from our Board of Education, and it was rejected.
So now we end up with an obnoxious gerrymandered plan forced upon us through the federal court.
With the permission of my board, I offered to meet with the plaintiffs without our attorneys prior to the judge’s ruling, to see if we could work to an end. That offer was also rejected.
To be perfectly honest, I weep for both sides. My wife is black, and so are my children. I pity our national culture where we first seek to divide to get our way.
I am also a former Fayette NAACP member, leaving the organization in 2005 after some of the membership began writing what I considered race-baiting letters on the need for district voting at a time it was impossible to create a majority-minority district, even with gerrymandering.
Perhaps our mostly segregated churches have forgotten Mark 12:31: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Likewise, I get angry when some of our whites use racial slurs, and I get depressed when our affluent blacks move to all-black neighborhoods, telling me they only want to live around people like them. This is not only Fayette County; this is metro Atlanta.
Our Voting Rights Act, Section 2 lawsuit is a small question, but it is part of a much larger problem.
Steve Brown is chairman of the Fayette County Commission.